At around 70 hours into Red Dead Redemption 2, I’m riding my horse through the Cumberland Forest as the wind begins to pick up from an approaching storm. I am a short distance from the town of Valentine, where I’ve spent a lot of time completing various tasks throughout the game. It’s in Valentine that you’ll be introduced to a few of the game’s mechanics early on, and while the Cumberland Forest is only a stone’s throw away, I’ve just never ventured into that area until now.
Rockstar has created a world with much to explore and a staggering number of things to do. Fully aware of this, I’m constantly surprised by new stuff that I haven’t seen before in all the hours I’ve been playing. None of this feels overwhelming; there aren’t dozens of markings on your map to indicate that you need to go and complete these objectives as you walk into a new region. Instead, a lot of it will just happen organically while you’re exploring. That’s just one of the reasons why Red Dead Redemption 2 is so brilliant, and the list of things it does so well keeps expanding as you continue to play. It is why Red Dead Redemption 2 will be the best gaming experience you’ll have this year; it will blow your mind — over and over again.
Set in 1899 and a prequel to Red Dead Redemption, the age of outlaws in the Wild West of America is coming to an end. The remaining gangs still around are being hunted and destroyed. When a robbery doesn’t go plan, your character, Arthur Morgan, and the Van der Linde gang are forced to go on the run as they attempt to hide themselves from the law in order to survive. Arthur was just a young kid when he was first taken in by the gang led by Dutch van der Linde, and since then he has treated it like his own family as other outlaws have joined the ranks.
The dynamic between the gang is fantastic. There are ups and downs throughout the story and the interaction amongst the two dozen members always keeps the narrative diverse and interesting. Dutch is one of the standout characters in the game. His leadership presence is always felt and every second he is on the screen results in another stunning moment. The early life of Red Dead Redemption’s protagonist John Marston is also a significant thread woven through the narrative. His relationship with Arthur grows immensely over the course of the game and it’s wonderful to see how John’s journey leads him to where he ultimately ends up in Red Dead Redemption.
This instalment sees a bunch of returning, familiar mechanics from the last game, including Dead Eye which has multiple, upgradeable levels. In its simplest form, Arthur is able to slow down time and paint enemy targets within the immediate vicinity, once finished you can hit the trigger button and Arthur will start firing at all of those markers. Later levels of Dead Eye will allow you to see critical areas on enemies or manually paint targets. This mechanic really helps alleviate tense moments when things start to get a little out of hand… but you can also just trigger it if you just want to see something cool happen.
Dead Eye can also be used in some of the harder hunting moments when you’re looking to try and get a clean shot off. There are hundreds of different animal species throughout the world, and each one has multiple tiers of quality. If you use weapons that aren’t suited to quickly take an animal down, or that are way too powerful, then the skin and corpse will end up being damaged and less valuable.
The skins and other resources obtained from animals can be used in crafting to create clothes or equipment upgrades. Unfortunately, a lot of the crafting options require the highest quality resources that can be found in the wild, so there’s no sense of progression as you work your way up to obtaining those items, because the lower-tiered materials aren’t used for anything. Moreover, crafting is a bit limited when it comes to clothing itself, making it hard to really customise Arthur as you see fit.
Crafting allows you to make meals, tonics, health items, and ammunition to help you survive. Some of these items can be taken to keep your three core attributes — health, stamina and Dead Eye — well sustained throughout the game. These same items can also be used to replenish your horses’ qualities, where you’ll have to manage their health and stamina by feeding them, along with keeping the horse groomed or calm during certain situations. Traversing the environment on horseback is elegant and easy, while there is also depth to being able to perform some more advanced manoeuvres later in the game.
One of the interesting choices that Rockstar Games made with Red Dead Redemption 2 is to change the way you approach interactions between characters. While in a lot of games with shooting mechanics the left trigger button is used to aim down sights, here it is used to focus on characters or objects. The purpose of your buttons will also change depending on the situation in the game world. For instance, if you’re trying to talk to another character out riding in the world, you can Greet or Antagonise them with a button press.
Maybe you’ve come too close to someone out camping in the woods and they don’t feel comfortable with you being around, so you can try to Defuse the situation with a press of the same button. If you have your weapon unholstered then the option to Rob them might be available. Alternatively, if you’re the one being robbed then Surrender could be something to consider. There are plenty of choices to think about and how you approach the moment is entirely up to the player, but those choices will build up and ripple out to start effecting the rest of the game as you progress.
It isn’t just the dialogue options that give you some freedom in how you develop your character — even shooting can be used in various ways. Unholstering your weapon and aiming it can terrify someone or cause them to reach for their gun. Aiming into the air and firing a shot could let the people at the bank you’re robbing know that you mean business, or if you are out in the wild it can spook vicious animals.
Arthur has a range of weapons and items he can use, but only a certain number can be carried at a single time – much like Rockstar Games’ Max Payne 3. Two smaller guns can be holstered and another two, larger weapons can be carried on your back. Your horse will store the rest of your weaponry and they all can be quickly interchanged if it’s nearby.
Throughout the game you’ll have the ability to purchase other weapons or upgrade and customise them at stores. There is also a selection of different ammo that can be used. Some will give damage bonuses while others will affect the range that they can be fired from. Weapons also deteriorate over time from use and environmental factors. Your best bet is to keep them clean and well maintained, but they are still very much useable at their lowest quality; thankfully, the system doesn’t become an annoying burden.
The shooting in Red Dead Redemption 2 feels mechanically solid and is immensely fun. There is a cover system that allows you to move between objects to avoid being hit. Overall, seeing the environment be destroyed around you as a gun fight heightens is such a visceral experience to be a part of. The only negative experiences I’ve had with the combat is during situations where you have waves of enemies attacking and you can see them spawning into places where no one was just moments ago.
Following shootouts you might be Wanted by the local law enforcement. This may also be triggered after committing crimes that are reported by nearby witnesses. Once you’re Wanted you’ll have to escape the area to prevent the law from catching you. If you manage to evade capture, a bounty will be placed on your head in that specific region, and the reward increases with each crime you commit and the severity of it. From here bounty hunters will occasionally come after you to collect the reward; the bigger the bounty, the harder it will be to get rid of them, as they’ll send more people at you.
If you’re not feeling up to taking on an army of bounty hunters, you can pay off your bounty at a number of post offices throughout the map. You can make it harder for people in the world to recognise you by wearing a mask while committing crimes, putting on different clothes or changing the appearance of your hair and beard. The latter of which I refuse to do because I’ve been growing that mighty beard and those luscious locks for over 70 hours now. Yes, Arthur’s hair grows in length as you play.
While ever-growing beard is something to be marvelled at, I have to point out just how visually stunning Red Dead Redemption 2 is. From the moment you take those first few steps, drudging through the snow in the Grizzlies, the game just refuses to look ugly – even at the expense of framerate drops in certain locations. The lighting is spectacular, and places like forest areas really showcase just how amazing the environment can look as the sun peaks through the trees.
In the early stages of game, there’s a fistfight that starts inside a bar and breaks out onto the street. Mud goes flying all over the place and as you tumble to the ground, and as this happens, your clothes begin to get dirty. Bruises on your face begin to show up after the fight, reminding you of the moment that punches were thrown. Blood can get on your shirt and scare people away from engaging with you. There are so many tiny visual details that have such a meaningful impact on the gameplay.
Rockstar Games has created a living, breathing world that I am absolutely invested in. While the main questline is deep and rewarding, the side content that used to fill in the gaps helps set this game apart from other open-world action games. There are strangers you’ll come across on your journey that provide tasks and missions which can span across multiple encounters. Random people will come up to you asking for help with a dilemma or you might see something bizarre off in the distance that leads you down some crazy story line. The world is just filled with a huge amount content to discover and the exploration that comes with that is incredible.
Rockstar Games continues to prove that when it comes to creating games, it’s the master at pushing the boundaries of what can be achieved. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a masterpiece and easily lives up to hype. It’ll prove a rewarding experience for anyone and is certainly the best game you’ll play this year.
Red Dead Redemption 2 was reviewed using a promotional retail disc on PlayStation 4 and PC download code, both as provided by the publisher. Our original PS4 review appeared on 25 October 2018. Click here to learn more about Stevivor’s scoring scale.